Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would expand background checks for the purchase of most firearms, legislation that got no Republican support and faces an uncertain fate in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
The bill is the second gun-related measure to clear the panel since the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Committee members on March 7 endorsed legislation that would strengthen penalties for gun trafficking, and the panel postponed until Thursday proposals to ban assault weapons and place limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, both of which will be met with strong opposition from lawmakers.
The committee today also approved on a bipartisan basis a measure to expand federal grants for school safety.
Lawmakers pushing for strengthened gun restrictions had counted on public outrage after the Newtown shootings, in which 20 children and six school workers were killed. President Barack Obama also backs renewal of the assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, though supporters are finding that such legislation lacks votes in the House and the Senate. The background-check measure has become the centerpiece of the president’s push for new gun laws.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, the background-check bill’s author, defended the measure shortly before the vote, directing his remarks to the eight Republican panel members who were unified in opposing it.
“It’s sad” Schumer said. “Right after Newtown there was a view that maybe the right place we could all come together on was background checks.” Gun crimes have greatly declined since enactment of the 1993 Brady Law that created a national background-check system, he said. “All we’re doing is extending the success of the Brady Law to the areas it doesn’t cover.”
The complexity of the debate on Capitol Hill reflects the influence of the National Rifle Association, a lobby group for gun owners and manufacturers. The NRA, which claims more than 4 million members, has led opposition to any limitations on the ownership of firearms, including expanded background checks.
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said the background-check bill won’t be effective in curbing gun violence because criminals won’t submit to them.
“Criminals do not comply with existing background checks laws,” said Grassley. “We should make sure existing laws are effective and enforced before we start enacting new ones.”
Polls show more than half of Americans support laws restricting access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Feb. 27 to March 4 found that 88 percent of respondents, including 83 percent of Republicans, are in favor of background checks of gun buyers.
“I feel very confident there will be a background-check bill that has Republican votes and passes both the Senate and House,” said California Representative Mike Thompson, who heads a panel of House Democrats on gun violence.
Schumer said Grassley’s argument that the nation shouldn’t have laws because criminals will circumvent them “makes no sense.” He said he’s continuing to work with Republicans, including Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, on a compromise before the full Senate takes up a package of gun legislation, probably early next month. That sets up a floor confrontation as Democrats work to keep their coalition unified in support of the measure while picking up enough Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to advance most major legislation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who presides over gun legislation in that chamber, said on Feb. 27 that he opposes requiring universal background checks for gun buyers and doesn’t plan to take up the issue.
Many Republicans oppose background checks because they say any new record-keeping requirements would lead to a federal gun registry. Democrats say it’s necessary for licensed gun dealers to keep a record so the law can be enforced and weapons found at crime scenes can be tracked. It is against federal law for the Justice Department to maintain a central record-keeping system.
“Every part of this strategy will be a tough road,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been pressing for gun restrictions since the Newtown shootings. “There are degrees. The steepness of the hill will vary, but every one of them is uphill.”
Schumer’s bill would also require states and federal agencies to do a better job of reporting records on felons, individuals with major mental-health problems, and others to the federal background-check system.
Before today’s vote, clergy members from Newtown released a letter signed by more than 4,000 U.S. religious leaders asking Congress to pass a comprehensive package of legislation addressing gun violence, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
“We have witnessed the scourge of gun violence,” the letter said, “and we call on Congress to pass comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation that will help stop the slaughter.”
In recent weeks, supporters have said that banning high- capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds may be just as difficult to advance in the Senate as an assault weapons ban.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat sponsoring the assault-weapons bill, said on March 7 that the measure, including a limit on high-capacity magazines, faces a “hard road” to passage. While the bill has support from the public, religious leaders, doctors, mayors and police, she said, “it’s as if we have a minority, insubstantial piece of legislation.”
The proposed ban would prohibit the sale, manufacture and transfer of more than 150 of the most commonly owned assault weapons. It also outlaws large-capacity magazines and other devices that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and allow shooters to fire numerous rounds in rapid succession without having to stop and reload.
The bill also protects more than 2,200 hunting and sporting rifles by specific make and model and any gun operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action. Weapons used by government officials, and law enforcement and retired law enforcement officers are exempt.
At least six of the 55 lawmakers in the Senate Democratic caucus have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to an assault weapons ban. That includes senators representing pro-gun states such as Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
That would make it difficult for Democrats to put together a 51-vote majority to pass the measure, and especially the 60 votes needed to advance most major legislation in the Senate.
Instead, proponents of new laws are aiming to expand background checks for gun buyers, including on private firearms sales at gun shows and weapons transactions between non-family members.
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